art of resistance, Iraq

Dunya Mikhail: Tablets.

dymaxion/artwork by the amazing Hayv Kahraman/

The following is a poem Tablets by the great Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail. I am posting it together with the great artwork by the Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman. Coming from Iraq, both of these great women have dealt with otherness, with being a refugee, with giving and leaving a part of yourself (forever). See it in their work, acknowledge it, respect it, remember it.

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She pressed her ear against the shell:
she wanted to hear everything
he never told her.
.
A single inch
separates their two bodies
facing one another
in the picture:
a framed smile
buried beneath the rubble.
.
Whenever you throw stones
into the sea
it sends ripples through me.
.
bagage
.
My heart’s quite small:
that’s why it fills so quickly.
.
Water needs no wars
to mix with water
and fill up spaces.
.
The tree doesn’t ask why it’s not moving
to some other forest
nor any other pointless questions.
.
He watches tv
while she holds a novel.
On the novel’s cover
there’s a man watching tv
and a woman holding a novel.
.
blowing1
.
On the first morning
of the new year
all of us will look up
at the same sun.
.
She raised his head to her chest.
He did not respond:
he was dead.
.
The person who gazed at me for so long,
and whose gaze I returned for just as long . . .    
That man who never once embraced me,
and whom I never once embraced  . . .    
The rain wrecked the colors around him
on that old canvas.
.
He was not with the husbands
who were lost and then found;
he did not come with the prisoners of war,
nor with the kite that took her,
in her dream,
to some other place,
while she stood before the camera
to have her smile
glued into the passport.
.
Hayv-Kahraman-part2-10
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Dates piled high
beside the road:
your way
of  kissing me.
.
Rapunzel’s hair
reaching down
from the window
to the earth
is how we wait.
.
The shadows
the prisoners left
on the wall
surrounded the jailer
and cast light
on his loneliness.
.
Homeland, I am not your mother,
so why do you weep in my lap like this
every time
something hurts you?
.
Never mind this bird:
it comes every day
and stops at the branch’s edge
to sing for an hour
or two.
That’s all it does:
nothing makes it happier.
.
House keys,
identity cards,
faded pictures among the bones . . .    
All of these are scattered
in a single mass grave.
.
2_1
.
The Arabic language
loves long sentences
and long wars.
It loves never-ending songs
and late nights
and weeping over ruins.
It loves working
for a long life
and a long death.
.
Far away from home — 
that’s all that changed in us.
.
Cinderella left her slipper in Iraq
along with the smell of cardamom
wafting from the teapot,
and that huge flower,
its mouth gaping like death.
.
Instant messages
ignite revolutions.
They spark new lives
waiting for a country to download,
a land that’s little more
than a handful of dust
when faced with these words:
“There are no results that match your search.”
.
The dog’s excitement
as she brings the stick to her owner
is the moment of opening the letter.
.
We cross borders lightly
like clouds.
Nothing carries us,
but as we move on
we carry rain,
and an accent,
and a memory
of another place.
.
How thrilling to appear in his eyes.
She can’t understand what he’s saying:
she’s too busy chewing his voice.
She looks at the mouth she’ll never kiss,
at the shoulder she’ll never cry on,
at the hand she’ll never hold,
and at the ground where their shadows meet.
.
• • •
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This poem was translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
All of the artwork (paintings and illustrations) is by the amazing Hayv Kahraman – visit her official website for more. For more on the poetry of Dunya Mikhail, visit her official website and the Poetry Foundation.
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art of resistance, Lebanon

The Book To Read: The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine.

blog_OP_bubbles_hakawati/illustration by Ayloul, for the article ‘The Hakawati, a story in pieces‘, The Outpost magazine/

“A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables. A storyteller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns. Like the word ‘hekayah’ story, fable, news, hakawati is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki’, which means talk or conversation. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine has had a good number of notable works by now, but this is his first book I (finally) managed to read. The rain was pouring most of the days last week, so I sat on my little balcony, letting myself go where Alameddine takes me. It was a good journey – I was bewitched and wanted more with every page.

In its essence, The Hakawati is an hommage to all the great storytellers of the Arab world and the art of storytelling itself. It is a story about the magic of stories and it was done so well it became magic in itself. And really – where would we be, what would we know, how would we feel – without stories? There’s no life, no memories, no history without stories. Like Alameddine writes:

What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”

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/The Hakawati, photo via Leonard Shoup/

The Hakawati is a mixture of stories that unravel throughout the book –  it is a historical novel and a family saga, and an impressive short story collection told at the same time. It takes its inspiration from everywhere – old Arab folktales, the Bible, the Qur’an, modern Lebanese storytellers, etc.

Music also pulls its strings here – particularly the oud, an instrument that was so important for Osama (the main character). And there’s more than one reference to the great Umm Kalthoum and the notion of tarab – known in Arab music as a musical ecstasy, the merger between music and emotional transformation.

The book is also a sort of a love letter to Beirut and Lebanon. Which doesn’t mean their relationship is perfect – like all great lovers, they went through a lot of turmoil. Osama returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The Beirut he finds is a shell of the Beirut he remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and – stories. Alameddine writes:

“Like all cities, Beirut has many layers, and I had been familiar with one or two. What I was introduced to that day with Ali and Kamal was the Beirut of its people. You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.”

You’ll come to know the diversity of Beirut through this book – there’s Elie, the neighbourhood bully and a militia leader, Osama and his half-Druze family (his mother is Christian and his sister Lina too), Jewish childhood friend Fatima, and a lot of other striking characters.

They are all lost – being the young generation during the Lebanese civil war – like their lives have been on hold for too long and now it’s hard to press the play button again. But if there ever was and is comfort, it is found in stories. Osama digs through the stories of where he came from – at times it is to know that he was and is at all, and at times it is to know where he can go or that he can go (on) at all.

And that is the beauty of stories – no matter how lost you are, you can always find your place and your people there. It is the eternal shelter –  you can just sit there and wait till the storm passes.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

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art of resistance, Egypt, Palestine

Radwa Ashour: Living With The Sea.

The following is an excerpt from Radwa Ashour’s novel The Woman from Tantoura (translated by Kay Heikkinen).

11193228_756935071088032_1600094042379216030_n/Radwa Ashour, photo: Lobna Ismail, via Arabic Literature/

“The sea was the border of the village, lending it its voices and colors, suffusing it with scents, which we would smell even in the aroma of the large, flat stone-baked bread loaves. I don’t remember when I learned how to swim just as I don’t remember when I learned how to walk or talk.

In later years I headed for coastal towns. I said ‘the sea in Beirut and Alexandria is the same sea’, but it wasn’t. City sea is different: you look at it from the high balcony or you walk along an asphalt path and the sea is there, separated from you by a ditch and a fence. And if you decide to go to it you come as a stranger, sitting in one of the coffee shops on the shore, or carrying with you stranger’s gear – an umbrella, a chair, perhaps a towel and a swimsuit. It’s a limited visit: you come as a guest, then you pick up your things and leave.

Like most of the houses in the village, our house was entwined with the sea. I would go to it carelessly, almost unnoticing, two steps in the water meaning to wet my feet and then a wave would surprise me, wetting my whole garment.  I would jump back to the sand and in the flash of an eye it would turn me into a sand creature, then another jump and I would dive into the water all the way.

I would swim and play, alone or with the other girls and boys. We would share in digging, then ‘me, me, me…’. I would go down into the deep pit and they would spread sand over me until my body disappeared , leaving only the heads rising excitedly from its warm, sandy burial place. A grave surrounded by the laughter and devilment of the young.

Perhaps the sea, like us, is absorbed in watching and forgets itself in calm, or is gradually overcome by sleepiness after the long evening. Like the sea, we give in to the gentle torpor. We don’t notice until our mothers take us away, and we follow them like sleepwalkers. We settle into our beds, not knowing if we are in the house or on the beach, if what we see or what rings in our ears is the real wedding or a dream in our sleep.

The sea resides in the village. As for the train, it has set times, appearing  and the disappearing, like the night-haunting ghoul. We are disturbed  by the roar of its engines as it approaches, the earth’s shaking as it passes, the friction of the wheels on the rails, its whistle bursts, the hiss of the brakes because it is stopping. The train passes through the town daily, and has a station in the east, in Zummarin. Sometimes it carries local people like us; mostly it is ridden by English soldiers or settlers with business in Haifa or Jaffa, who come and go by train. My two brothers ride Abu Isam’s bus once a week, going to Haifa at the beginning of the week and returning at the end, to spend Thursday and Friday night with us.”

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Emile Habibi: The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist.

The following is an excerpt from Emile Habibi’s satirical novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (first published in 1974). It is a story of a Palestinian who becomes a citizen of Israel (very much like Habibi himself), and in many ways – a prisoner of Israel. It’s a story about a looney man, atypical hero, a luckless fool, a man looking for survival – and maybe, just maybe – even a little bit more from life.

992837792/Emile Habibi, photo via Haaretz/

I found that we were then at a crossroad between Nazareth and Nahlal, passing the plain of Ibn Amir. The big man signalled to the policemen through the glass window separating him from ‘the dogs.’ They led me out and stuffed me in between the big man and the driver. I made myself comfortable and sighed, breathed the fresh air deep, and remarked, ‘Oh, I see we’re in the plain of Ibn Amir.’ Obviously annoyed, he corrected me: ‘No, it’s the Yizrael plain.’

‘What’s in a name?’, as Shakespeare put it, I soothed him. I spoke the line in English, causing him to murmur, ‘Oh, sou you quote Shakespeare, do you?’

As we descended further down into the plain toward its city of Affulah, with the hills of Nazareth to our left, the big man began reciting to me the principles governing my new life in prison, the etiquette of behavior toward the jailers who were my superiors and the other inmates who were my inferiors. He promised, moreover, to get me promoted to a liaison position. While he was going through these lessons, I became ever more certain that what is required of us inside prison is no different from what is required from us on the outside. My delight at this discovery was so great that I exclaimed joyfully, ‘Why, God bless you, sir!’

He went on: ‘If a jailer should call you, your first response must be: Yes, sir! And if he should tell you off, you must reply: At your command, sir! And if you should hear from your fellow inmates engaging in any conversation that threatens the security of the prison, even by implication, you must inform the warden. Now, if he should give you a beating, then say -‘

I interrupted him with a proper response, ‘That’s your right, sir!’

‘How did you know that? Were you ever imprisoned before?’

‘Oh, no. God forbid, sir, that anyone should have beaten you to this favor! I have merely noticed according to your account of prison rules of etiquette and behavior that your prison treats inmates with great humanitarianism and compassion – just as you treat us on the outside. And we behave the same, too. But how do you punish Arabs who are criminals, sir?’

‘This bothers us considerably. That’s why our minister general has said that our occupation has been the most compassionate on Earth ever since Paradise was liberated from its Occupation of Adam and Eve. Among our leadership there are some who believe that we treat Arabs inside prisons even better than we treat them outside, though this latter treatment is, as you know, excellent. These same leaders are convinced that we this encourage them to continue to resist our civilizational mission in the new territories, just like those ungrateful African cannibals who eat their benefactors.’

‘How do you mean, sir?’

‘Well, take for example our policy of punishing people with exile. This we award them without their going to jail. If they once entered jail, they would become as firmly established there as British occupation once was. ‘

‘Yes, God bless you indeed, sir!’

‘And we demolish their homes when they’re outside, but when they’re inside prison we let them occupy themselves building.’

‘That’s really great! God bless you! But what do they build?’

‘New prisons and new cells in old jails: and they plant shade trees around them too.’

‘God bless you again! But why do you demolish their homes outside the prison?’

‘To exterminate the rats that build their nests in them. This way we save them from the plague.’

By now the police car was leaving the city of Affulah on the Bisan road, which led to my new residence. On both sides refreshing water was being sprayed on the green vegetation, fresh in the very heat of summer. Suddenly the big man, cramped there with me and the driver in the front seat of that dogcart, was transformed into a poet. 

While I sat there being my usual Pessoptimistic self, he was estatic: ‘Verdant fields! Green on your right and on your left: green everywhere! We have given life to what was dead. This is why we have named the borders of Israel the Green Belt. For beyond them lie barren mountains and desert reaches, a wilderness calling out to us, ‘Come ye hither, tractors of civilization!’

I looked before me and saw a huge building towering like an ugly demon of the desert ; its walls were yellow, and around it there was a high, white outer wall. There were guards posted on each of the four sides of the roof, and they could be seen standing with their guns at the ready. We were awestruck by the spectacle of this yellow castle, so exposed and naked of any vegetation, protruding like a cancerous lump on the breast of a land itself sick with cancer. The big man was unable to control himself and exclaimed, ‘There! The terrible Shatta prison! How fantastic!’

I stretched my neck forward in alarm and whispered, ‘God bless us all!’

This led him to comment, ‘It is the prison warden who will bless you. Come on down. I’ll ask him to look after you.'”

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: A Sky So Close by Betool Khedairi.

Betool Khedairi is an Iraqi novelist, born to an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother. She grew up in Iraq, and later on moved between Iraq, Jordan and United Kingdom.  A Sky So Close is her first novel, written more than a decade ago. The book has been published in numerous languages, from Arabic to English, Italian, French and Dutch.

729570-gf/French edition of A Sky So Close/

This novel is about Iraq as much as it isn’t about Iraq – it is a story about the freedom and imagination of childhood, about the complex struggle between identities, cultures and traditions, abour racism and shadows wars cast on societies long after they’re finished. Khedairi tells the story in a simple, unpretentious way, offering a fresh look on childhood in the Iraqi countryside in the 1970s. She writes:

“In the vast expanse everything was bigger than me. Even the way you looked at me, across the breakfast table, when I called my mother ‘mummy’ instead of calling her ‘youm’ or ‘yumma’ in the Arabic way. I only felt I was my true size when I was with Khadija, this person was the only creature in the world who made me feel that there was something or someone, as small as me. I made her even smaller. I called her Khaddouja – ‘Little Khadija’.

She was my world. She was everything that came in the second half of the day. A world that spread between our farmhouse and her father’s hut, by the banks of the Tigris River, in our little village twenty miles south of Baghdad. Zafraniya, it was called – ‘Land of Saffron.’ That was where the apricot trees grew. Vast acres of graceful trees , their upper branches entwined. When the sun starts to sink over the apricot farm, their shadow fall as complex patterns of light and shade on the ground underneath. The youthful branches stretch out in all directions. Their sharp twigs seem like fingers, entangled in handshakes, exchanging bunches of white flowers. Each spring I wish that the flowers would last forever.”

We get to know about adolescence issues and coming of age during the long Iraq-Iran war, which changed the country beyond retrieve.  It was a state of chaos, a chaos people got used to with time. Khedairi describes the situation:

“The war has been dragging its heavy feet from the day the first military communique was issued. The ages of those called up for compulsory military services have been extended to both younger boys and older men. Calls have gone out for more voluntary contributions. Laws forbidding travel abroad have become more numerous and varied. Foreign magazines have disappeared from the shelves in bookshops. Imported good have been replaced by local produce.

Pharmacies have been banned from selling conraceptive pills in an effort to increase the populationnand replace losses at the battlefields. The television natters with promotions encouraging marriage and early conception. In a new trend called ‘mass weddings’ large halls are hired out, complete with all varieties of foods and sweets. Couples are married there en masse. Each couple takes their turn at cutting the gigantic white cake, using a knife decorated with colored ribbons.”

The story continues with protagonist’s migration to England, some years before the first Gulf war, when, as she writes; “events in my homeland were no longer considered newsworthy by the world’s radio stations.”

The book is not a masterpiece, but a rather enjoyable and fair account of one’s life between East and West, war and peace, survival and death.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

Sohrab Sepehri & The Water’s Footfall

and more.

 

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